Against the background of mainstream country music, synonymous with anodyne formulaic muzak designed to satisfy record company accountants, Johnny Cash stands out as a beacon of integrity and artistic independence. From his early rockabilly records, via blues, folk, gospel and other genres, to the astonishing recordings he made with producer Rick Rubin in the decade before his death in 2003, Cash generally rejected the Carter Family’s injunction to ‘keep on the sunny side of life’. Rather, his willingness to explore what the Carters called the ‘dark and troubled side of life’ made his art so compelling.
It also makes Cash an ideal subject for this sort of biographical film. Walk The Line opens in exhilarating fashion with Cash’s famous 1968 concert in Folsom Prison. His insistence on performing for these prisoners, against the advice of his conservative commercial advisors, reinforced the reputation of the ‘man in black’. For, legend has it, Cash adopted his black attire as an expression of his solidarity with the poor and downtrodden. In fact, Cash’s black attire initially had a more prosaic rationale – as the film makes clear. At the start of his career in the mid-1950s Cash found that the only reasonably presentable shirt he had for gigs was black.
That solidarity was, nevertheless, real. To explain it Walk The Line rewinds from Folsom to Cash’s impoverished childhood on a small Arkansas cotton farm that his father had acquired under Roosevelt’s New Deal. But if Cash’s early experiences help explain his lifelong belief in the dignity of labour, Walk The Line also uses childhood tragedy – the death of his beloved brother Jack, for which Cash blamed himself – to explain his intense shyness, introspection, and what would later appear as a dogged commitment to self-destruction.
At the birth of rock and roll artists were simultaneously performers, road managers and drivers who were sent on absurdly long tours and travelling hundreds of miles between gigs. Cash began to use amphetamines to keep going and overcome his shyness on stage. Walk The Line does not pay uncritical homage to its hero and paints a vivid picture of Cash’s developing addiction in the 1960s. His behaviour became increasingly unpredictable and violent, resulting in divorce from his first wife. So pathetic was his descent into a landscape inhabited by his inner demons, Cash seemed unlikely to see the end of the decade.
That he did so was in large part due to his ultimately reciprocated love for June Carter, who Cash had fallen for in his youth while listening to the Carter Family on the radio in his Arkansas shack. Cash’s redemption and the relationship between the haunted Cash and the brutally honest, devoted June are the central intertwined themes of what is a superior and believable love story.
However, while Walk The Line is immensely enjoyable, not least thanks to the fabulous soundtrack, there is something missing from the film. For, however compelling Cash’s inner struggle may be, such struggles are related to objective changes beyond immediate relationships with loved ones. Yet, there is not one mention of the upheavals in 1960s US in the film’s 135 minutes.
The film does show Cash’s radical attitude towards prisons, which he saw as symbolising the wider imprisonment of the human spirit. What it does not reveal is his outrage at the oppression by the ‘white man’ of native Americans, captured on his 1964 album Bitter Tears. Nor do we discover that he publicly declared a wish for the troops to be brought home ‘in peace’ from Vietnam. Likewise, there is no mention of his denunciation of a small far-right party and the Ku Klux Klan when he was attacked for having a wife who was too dark-skinned for their liking.
What Walk The Line presents is an image of a relatively isolated individual who spent much of his time either proposing to June or flagellating himself when she again turned him down. This captures only one side of Cash, and had Mangold attempted to situate its life within its wider context he would have transformed what is a very good film into a truly excellent one.
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